Prophet Ibrahim (as) and Imamate in the Holy Qur’an


With the onset of another Hajj season, it is important to revisit the life the father of Monotheism and defender of the religion of Allah (swt), who lived in an age of darkness and ignorance and oppression (very much like today). He tried with all his being to stand in the way of the taqut (tyranny in all its forms) of his time, with absolute submission and complete awareness. Did he succeed, we’ll find out in the next post.

First, we have a duty as Muslims and followers of Prophet Ibrahim and Muhammad (upon them and their families be peace), to search within the Holy Quran for this doctrine we call Imamate (divine leadership), and look for its conditions and constraints and responsibilities. We have to assess whether it is continuous until the last day or temporary, and the implications of its continuity. 

From the Shi’ite point of view, Imamate (God-assigned leadership) is Allah’s bounty upon mankind by which the religion was perfected:

"Today I have perfected your religion and completed my bounty upon you, and I was satisfied that Islam be your religion." (Quran 5:3)

Imamate is the Grace (Lutf) of Allah which attracts mankind towards His obedience and keeps them away from His disobedience, without compelling them in any way. When Allah orders mankind to do something yet He is aware that either they can not do it, or it is very difficult for them to do it without His assistance, then if Allah does not provide His assistance, He would be contradicting His own aim. Obviously, such negligence is evil according to reason. As such, Grace (Lutf) is one of Allah’s character, and He is purified/exalted from inadequacy of lacking such attribute. In fact, the holy Quran states that: "Allah is Gracious to His servants…" (Quran 42:19).

The messengers of God were entrusted the responsibility of bringing new commandments from Allah to the people. They were warners as Quran testifies. However, some of the messengers were Also Imams/Guides. The successors of the last Messenger of God were not messengers/prophets, and as such, they did not bring any new massage nor did they cancel any of the regulations set by the Prophet (PBUH&HF). They just served as guides and guardians of religion. Their mission is to explain, elaborate Shari’a (Divine law) for the people. They clear up confusing things and events which may happen in each era. Also they are the only individuals who have the full knowledge of Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HF) after him, and as such, they are the only qualified people who can properly interpret the verses of the holy Quran and explain its meaning, as mentioned in Quran itself (See 3:7 and 21:7).[1]

Imamate in the different Schools of Thought

Two schools of thought hold very different views on what Imamate in Islam means. The first school deals with it solely as a political issue, limited to the concept of khalifah and political leadership of the ummah, with no religious, scientific or existential dimensions. This is the view of the followers of the Sahabah.

The Shi’a, on the other hand, believe that, like the prophets, a divinely appointed Imam should excel the community in all virtues, such as knowledge, bravery, piety, and should possess complete knowledge of divine law. If he does not, and Allah entrusts this high position to a less perfect person when a more perfect person is available, the inferior has been given preference over the superior, which is wrong rationally, and is against divine justice. Therefore no inferior person may receive Imamate from Allah when there exists a person superior to him. This necessitates an ever-enduring presence, since humanity remains in constant need of guidance towards its path to perfection. Therefore, to this school, it is unimaginable that this world remains devoid of an Imam at any instant in time. This school deals with Imamate in a complete Qur’anic approach, considering it a bounty and grace of Allah (swt) upon humanity by which the religion was perfected, and taking into account its existential, guiding, scientific, political and social aspects.

This first discussion hopes to make clear that Imamate:

  1. is continuous, irrespective of time

  2. is established and based on direct appointment by Allah (swt) and limited to a select few chosen by Him

  3. includes special qualities in line with the responsibilities of the Imam, like infallibility, special knowledge etc.

The main problem of the school of Sahabah with respect to Imamate, is that they went back and derived the defining laws for Imamate based on the historic context of the khilafat of the 3 that came after the Holy Prophet (saawa), and since their role (the khalifas) was limited to political leadership, it was logical to conclude that selection of a leader would be through consultation and election, since: this was something common amongst the arabs; and the government is a concern of the people, therefore requiring them to play an active role in it.

As a result they held that this leadership is temporary, since this position can only come into effect by election and the pledging of allegiance of the people. Therefore, the existence of the Imam rests upon this vital condition, without which there can be no Imam to lead the Ummah.

Imamate in the Holy Qur’an

Here I would like to address some questions we need to answer to arrive at a clear and undisputable conclusion on the issue of Imamate in the Quran:

  • What is meant by khilafah in the Qur’an? What are its conditions and limitations? What are the responsibilities of the khalifah?

  • Is Imamate continuous or broken (interrupted)?

  • If we prove that it is continuous, is it limited to a certain number of individuals or not?

  • If we prove that it is limited, how many Imams are there, and who are they? Have they been pointed out by the Holy Prophet (saawa)?

  • If the last of the Imams has been identified, is he alive or will be born at some point in the future?

If one studies the history of the prophets of God, he will find that they were from the same family. Allah, to whom belongs Might and Majesty, said:

وَإِذِ ابْتَلَىٰ إِبْرَاهِيمَ رَبُّهُ بِكَلِمَاتٍ فَأَتَمَّهُنَّ ۖ قَالَ إِنِّي جَاعِلُكَ لِلنَّاسِ إِمَامًا ۖ قَالَ وَمِن ذُرِّيَّتِي ۖ قَالَ لَا يَنَالُ عَهْدِي الظَّالِمِينَ

‘And when Abraham was tested by his Lord with certain commands and he fulfilled them. Then He said: Lo! I appoint you (Abraham) an Imam for mankind. (Abraham) said: And of my offspring (will there be Imam)? He said: My Covenant does not reach the wrong-doers (among them).’ (Quran 2:124)

Firstly, we learn from this verse that the Imamate is a matter that should decided by God Almighty, because in the verse of khilafah,

وَإِذْ قَالَ رَبُّكَ لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ إِنِّي جَاعِلٌ فِي الْأَرْضِ خَلِيفَةً

‘And when thy Lord said unto the angels: Lo! I am about to place a viceroy in the earth’ (Quran 2:30)

This verse shows that grammatically the khliafah is present at all times, since the verb ja’il (I am placing) is in present tense and indicates continuity, and this is confirmed by big scholars of tafsir Al Razi and Al Alousi. And when this verb is compared to other instances in the Qur’an, we find that it relates to Allah’s sunnah (swt), or divine decree, which means it is an existential act of God and cannot be changed or modified. Allah (swt) says ‘I am about to place a viceroy..’ and in the verse of Ibrahim above (2:124), He also says (I appoint you Imam …), therefore the Abrahamic Imamate is a divine decree and Allah’s decision, just as Prophethood is chosen by God Almighty, as in the verse:

اللَّـهُ أَعْلَمُ حَيْثُ يَجْعَلُ رِسَالَتَهُ

‘Allah knoweth best with whom to place His message.’ (Quran 6:124)

Therefore, there is no room in this Abrahamic Imamate for consultation or election or the phrase ‘extend your hand so that I can pledge allegiance’.

In another verse we find that the khilafah according to the Quran is not meant to be given to any individual in the general population, but is meant for a select few who have been given special divine knowledge (see also Quran 7:35):

هُوَ الَّذِي جَعَلَكُمْ خَلَائِفَ فِي الْأَرْضِ

‘He it is Who hath made you regents in the earth.’ (Quran 35:39)

Imamate given to Ibrahim (as) after Prophethood

Some scholars have tried to suggest that this status given to Ibrahim (as) is not Imamate but something else. What it is not, is Prophethood, since he was already given prophethood and Allah (swt) was already communicating with him. Also, in Quran 2:124, the verse shows that Ibrahim (as) has requested the Imamate for his progeny, which Allah (swt) didn’t grant him (the progeny) until a later stage in his life when he became an old man (see also Ibrahim:39, Hud:72 and Hijr:54). If this divine order of Imamate that was given to Ibrahim was at the beginning of his life before having been blessed with a progeny, he should have said ‘and of my progeny, if you bless me with a progeny?’, and he would be asking Allah (swt) for something he had no knowledge of.

This verse also indicates that this new status of Imamate was granted to Prophet Ibrahim (as) after the most severe and difficult test of sacrificing his son Isma’il (Quran 37:102-111). Therefore, it would not make sense for Prophet Ibrahim (as) to go through the most difficult tests and say this is to grant him Prophethood. This is confirmed by several famous and authentic tafsir and narrations, like Tafseer Al Kabir of Al Razi, Vol.4, pg42:

‘On the words in the aya ‘and of my progeny..’, he (Ibrahim) requested Imamate for his progeny mentioned by Allah (swt), so the verse would mean ‘Imamate would not reach the wrong-doers..’, and that on the surface the aya proves that this Imamate needs to be infallible overtly and covertly. We say: the Shi’a use this aya as proof for the infallibility of their Imams overtly and covertly. And we say: This is what the aya indicates, yet we do not take the covert infallibility into consideration, and the overt justice remains intact.’

Now, the last sentence is very strange, considering he agrees that the aya indicates the overt and covert characteristic of infallibility of the Imamate, yet he does not give a reason why he left out the covert aspect of it and settled with the overt justice! (Their testimony will be recorded and they will be questioned 43:19)

And in Tafsir of Al Tabari, Jami’ Al Bayan, Vol.2, pg 511, the scholar interprets the Imamate to be ‘a role model’:

‘And the scholars of interpretation differed … and others said the meaning of the Covenant is the covenant of Imamate, so the interpretation of the verse would be ‘I do not make of your children an unjust Imam to be a role model for my slaves’ , because it interpreted the ruler of emulation has been said here this Abtalna this possibility, this is the second resource.

This interpretation of the verse is not in line with the actual events and situation, due to the obvious fact that the father of Monotheism and Sheikh of the Prophets was already a prophet to his people, and someone of his stature to request the status of role model after being tested with such calamities is inconceivable and illogical.

The third reference is to be found in the tafsir of Ibn Kathir, Vol.1, commenting on the same verse he says:

‘The narration from Mujahid: who said, (on the verse) ‘My Covenant does not reach the wrong-doers (among them)’ means there cannot be an unjust Imam.’

So all of the scholars interpreted the Covenant as an Imamate. Therefore, if the Imamate is a covenant between the Imam and God, could it be reached by election and the Shura Council?

Abrahamic Imamate is Infallible

Most scholars agree that this Imamate in the Quran has to be infallible. The first reference to this can be found in Fakhr Al Razi’s Tafsir Al Kabir, Vol.4, pg 39, he says: ‘The aya indicates the infallibilityof prophets..’ , therefore irrespective of whether he interprets the ‘covenant’ to mean Imamate or Prophethood, he confirms that the aya indicates the infallibility of it. In the same tafsir of Al Razi, Vol.3, pg 10, where he is commenting on the verse 35 of Al Baqarah: ‘It is incumbent on the people to follow the Imam (in all aspects of religion and politics), and if he committed a mistake (or sin), they would need to follow him regardless, and that would be contradicting.’

Al Razi is saying that Allah (swt) ordered people to follow Ibrahim (as), and if he committed a sin, regardless how small, should they follow him or not? They cannot! Therefore, how can Allah (swt) order them to follow someone and forbid them at the same time? Then we have to conclude that this Imamate has to be infallible to avoid any contradiction in the aya.

Among those who also stated the infallibility, is Al Baydhawi in his tafsir ‘Anwar Al Tanzil wa Asrar Al Ta’weel’, known as Tafsir of Baydhawi, on the page referring to verse 124 of Al Baqarah, he says: ‘And this is proof of the infallibility of the great Prophets..’. And also Al Alousi in his ‘Rouh Al Ma’ani’ has indicated the same meaning.

Continuity of the Abarahamic Imamate

As shown above in verses 30 and 124 of Al Baqarah, that Ibrahim (as) requested the Imamate to continue through his progeny, which Allah (swt) agreed to on the condition that the unjust have no part in it, just as it is clearly stated in these verses:

وَتَرَكْنَا عَلَيْهِ فِي الْآخِرِينَ ﴿١٠٨﴾ سَلَامٌ عَلَىٰ إِبْرَاهِيمَ ﴿١٠٩﴾ كَذَٰلِكَ نَجْزِي الْمُحْسِنِينَ ﴿١١٠﴾ إِنَّهُ مِنْ عِبَادِنَا الْمُؤْمِنِينَ ﴿١١١﴾ وَبَشَّرْنَاهُ بِإِسْحَاقَ نَبِيًّا مِّنَ الصَّالِحِينَ ﴿١١٢﴾ وَبَارَكْنَا عَلَيْهِ وَعَلَىٰ إِسْحَاقَ ۚ وَمِن ذُرِّيَّتِهِمَا مُحْسِنٌ وَظَالِمٌ لِّنَفْسِهِ مُبِينٌ

‘And We left for him among the later folk (the salutation): (108) Peace be unto Abraham! (109) Thus do We reward the good. (110) Lo! he is one of Our believing slaves. (111) And we gave him tidings of the birth of Isaac, a prophet of the righteous. (112) And We blessed him and Isaac. And of their seed are some who do good, and some who plainly wrong themselves.’ (Quran 37:108-113)

Therefore, in Ibrahim’s progeny there exist the righteous and the those who plainly wrong themselves, and the above aya in Al Baqarah states that only the righteous can inherit the Imamate, so the Imamate has continued through the righteous progeny oh Ibrahim (as).

The question arises then: has the progeny of Ibrahim (as) been discontinued? No, it continued to our Holy Prophet Muhammad (sawaa). And did the Holy Prophet have a progeny of his own? Yes, he most certainly did, and it is continuous until the last day. So the Abrahamic Imamate has continued through the righteous and infallible progeny of Muhammad (sawaa), who are chosen by Allah (swt) directly.

Imamate in the School of Ahlul Bayt (as)

So from the above we see that even the Holy Quran contains a detailed view of Imamate, a view that is accurate and detailed, including the conditions stipulated by said

وَجَعَلْنَاهُمْ أَئِمَّةً يَهْدُونَ بِأَمْرِنَا وَأَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْهِمْ فِعْلَ الْخَيْرَاتِ وَإِقَامَ الصَّلَاةِ وَإِيتَاءَ الزَّكَاةِ ۖ وَكَانُوا لَنَا عَابِدِينَ

‘And We made them chiefs who guide by Our command, and We inspired in them the doing of good deeds and the right establishment of worship and the giving of alms, and they were worshippers of Us (alone).’ (Quran 21:73)

Some might argue that this verse is related to the Bani Isra’il. Yes it, this is the Abrahamic Imamate, where the conditions are continuing. These are the conditions and constraints. The Quran has given a complete system on the Imamate. Therefore, we as the followers of the Ahlul Bayt of Muhammad (sawaa), referred back to the Quran and investigated and contemplated on its verses. We then put these verses against the correct actions and narrations of our Prophet Muhammad (sawaa) (Nor doth he speak of (his own) desire. It is naught save an inspiration that is inspired, Quran 53:3-4) and (nd whatsoever the messenger giveth you, take it. And whatsoever he forbiddeth, abstain (from it), Quran 59:7), and asked:

‘Oh Prophet of Allah (swt), we read in the Holy Quran that the Imamate exists and that it is infallible and continuous, and when you are present you are the Imam and Imam of all Imams, then who are the Imams after you?’ He responds with the famous hadith: ‘The Imams after me are 12.’ So they are limited to a certain group, a group that succeeds the Holy Prophet (sawaa), not just any person or leader that comes along, the likes of Mu’awiyah and Yazid and Adbulmalik ibn Marwan. Is it logical that these kind of people succeed in the footsteps of the Prophet of Allah (sawaa)??

The narrations where the Holy Prophet indicated that his successors would be twelve, exceed 270 narrations from both schools of thought, or even more. Here are some examples:

In Sahih al-Bukhari (Arabic-English version), the tradition is as follows:

Sahih al-Bukhari Hadith: 9.329

Narrated Jabir Ibn Samura: I heard the Prophet saying, "There will be twelve commanders (Amir)." He then said a sentence which I did not hear. My father said, the Prophet added, "All of them will be from Quraish."

In Musnad Ahmad, the tradition is as follows:

The Prophet (PBUH&HF) said: "There shall be twelve Caliphs for this community, all of them from Quraish."

Reference: Musnad Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, v5, p106

In Sahih Muslim, the traditions are as follows:

Narrated Jabir Ibn Samura: The Prophet (PBUH&HF) said: "The matter (life) will not end, until it is passed by twelve Caliphs." He then whispered a sentence. I asked my father what the Prophet said. He said, the Prophet added: "All of them will be from Quraish."

Sunni references:

Sahih Muslim, Arabic version, Kitab al-Imaara, 1980 Edition Pub. in Saudi Arabia, v3, p1452, Tradition #5

Sahih Muslim, English version, Chapter DCCLIV (titled: The People are subservient to the Quraish and the Caliphate is the Right of the Quraish), v3, p1009, Tradition #4477

Again from Sahih Muslim:

The Prophet (PBUH&HF) said: "The affairs of people will continue to be conducted (well) as long as they are governed by the twelve men."

Sunni references:

Sahih Muslim, Arabic version, Kitab al-Imaara, 1980 Edition Pub. in Saudi Arabia, v3, p1453, Tradition #6

Sahih Muslim, English version, Chapter DCCLIV (titled: The People are subservient to the Quraish and the Caliphate is the Right of the Quraish), v3, p1010, Tradition #4478

Also: The Prophet (PBUH&HF) said: "Islam will continue to be triumphant until there have been twelve Caliphs."

Sunni references:

Sahih Muslim, Arabic version, Kitab al-Imaara, 1980 Edition Pub. in Saudi Arabia, v3, p1453, Tradition #7

Sahih Muslim, English version, Chapter DCCLIV (titled: The People are subservient to the Quraish and the Caliphate is the Right of the Quraish), v3, p1010, Tradition #4480

Again: The Prophet (PBUH&HF) said: "The Islamic religion will continue until the Hour (day of resurrection), having twelve Caliphs for you, all of them will be from Quraish."

Sunni references:

Sahih Muslim, Arabic version, Kitab al-Imaara, 1980 Edition Pub. in Saudi Arabia, v3, p1453, Tradition #10

Sahih Muslim, English version, Chapter DCCLIV (titled: The People are subservient to the Quraish and the Caliphate is the Right of the Quraish), v3, p1010, Tradition #4483

More Sunni references of similar traditions:

Sahih al-Tirmidhi, v4, p501

Sunan Abu Dawud, v2, p421 (three traditions). Others such as al-Tiyalasi, Ibn al-Athir, etc.

And many more. Bear in mind that the writers and collectors of hadith like Bukhari were contemporaries of some of the Imams (as), and therefore we cannot be accused of placing these hadiths ourselves after the prophetic traditions became an actual fact.

So then we asked him, ‘O Messenger of Allah, what is their number, said: ‘Twelve’. We asked, ‘O Messenger of God, what is their parentage? He said: ‘They are of my offspring and progeny,’ because the Imamate only exists in the descendants of Ibrahim (as), it is impossible to be outside of his progeny, just as the Quran stated.

Then we asked the Messenger of Allah: ‘O Messenger of Allah your progeny are plenty, are all of them included? He said: ‘No, the progeny of my household,’ ‘But O Messenger of God we may on who it is, can you make it clearer for us?’ He then put a mantle on them, as it is in Sahih Muslim, and said: ‘By Allah, those are of my family (ahlul bayt).’

And further more he made them the equal of the Quran, "(‘Verily, I leave behind two precious things amongst you: the Book of Allah and my ahl al­bayt. Verily, the two will never separate until they come back to me by the side of the Pond. , which further proves their infallibility. [2]


[1] See Shi’ite Encyclopedia at

[2] See for a detailed study of this hadith



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